The enfant-terrible of the 1980s New York art-world, Jean-Michel Basquiat was only twenty-two, when he made this complex and vivid work. Coming to the art world through the world of graffiti, Basquiat tagged Soho art galleries and hip Lower East Side clubs with his signature “SAMO” from 1977 to 1980. Basquiat would reveal himself as the anonymous artist behind the spray paint in the summer of 1981 when he exhibited as himself in the Times Square Show, an exhibition that introduced the major themes of the 1980s to the New York art world. Basquiat’s work—a make-shift wall inside of the gallery graffitied with expressive marks—was a standout success next to videos by Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, hand-painted text signs by Jenny Holzer, figurative sculpture by John Ahearn and Tom Otterness, and others who would define art of the 1980s. Soon after, Basquiat would earn a reputation for his prescient ability to parse the whole of society’s images, from art history, pop culture, and fashion high and low, and synthesize them into a piercing and cohesive statement that represented his subjects at their core essence. As then art critic Jeffrey Deitch said in 1982, “Basquiat’s greatest strength is his ability to merge his absorption of imagery from the streets, the newspapers, and TV with the spiritualism of Haitian heritage, injecting both into a marvelously innovative understanding of the language of modern painting” (J. Deitch, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Annina Nosei,” Flash Art 16, May 1982, p. 50).
A line from Rene Ricard’s 1981 famous essay “The Radiant Child” about Basquiat equally describes this drawing from 1982. “This is the double-headed monster of erudition, half seeing too much and half of it blind.” (R. Ricard, “The Radiant Child,” Artforum Dec. 1981, n.p). Part werewolf, part Frankenstein, part-zombie, the talon claws of the figure’s brown hand scrape at the paper’s surface from inside the drawing leaving behind olive and acid orange scratches and scrawl marks. Like Basquiat’s masterpiece Untitled (Head) completed over the year 1981, this drawing also features a X-ray view into the figure’s head. Nicholas Mirzoeff interprets Basquiat’s work: “He sought to explore the dependence of modern art upon a notion of racial difference in order for its works to signify. He further endeavored to imagine ways of representing the body without signifying race. Basquiat looked for a new sense of identity in the culture of diaspora, even as the art world rewrote his story as the traditional rise and fall of an outsider. Both histories show at once the importance of race in the visual culture of the West and the ways in which, despite the strenuous efforts of many to the contrary, the result has been a hybrid creolization” (N. Mirzoeff, Bodyscape: art, modernity and the ideal figure, London and New York, 1995, p. 15).
1982, the year that this Untitled drawing was made is the year the young Basquiat hit his stride as an artist, with two solo shows in New York and four others in Rome, Zurich, Los Angeles and Rotterdam as well as inclusion in Documenta 7. As Lisa Liebmann wrote in Art in America about one of two solo shows Basquiat had in 1982, “What has propelled him so quickly is the unmistakable eloquence of his touch. The linear quality of his phrases and notations...shows innate subtlety—he gives us not gestural indulgence, but an intimately elaborated relationship to surface instead” (L. Liebmann, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Annina Nosei,” Art in America 70, Oct. 1982, p. 130).
In addition to the poetic sensibilities expressed in his use of language in his paintings, and the social commentary he brought from the graffiti-marked streets into the galleries, Basquiat was also the inheritor of Abstract Expressionism as his early critics were quick to notice. Upon seeing the artist’s contribution to the Times Square Show, Deitch compared Basquiat to an Ab-Ex master: “A patch of wall by SAMO, the omnipresent graffiti artist sloganeer, was a knock-out combination of de Kooning and subway spray-paint scribbles” (J. Deitch, “Report from Times Square,” Art in America 68, Sept. 1980, p. 61). Indeed, Basquiat’s figure in this Untitled work bears a strong resemblance to de Kooning’s series of Women paintings, hulking, monstrous forms who also bare their teeth.
Other writer’s championing Basquiat made the same connection: “The traditional substructure of Basquiat’s art is Abstract Expressionism. He piles up rich palimpsest of paint over black grounds or snazzy oranges that are structured with architectonic solidity” (W. Wilson, “N.Y. Subway Graffiti: All Aboard For L.A.,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 16, 1982, n.p.). However in Germany, those writing about Basquiat would connect his graffittiesque scrawlings to the signature calligraphy of Twombly: “His strength comes not so much from the social commentary aspect of his work (although he has made unforgettable saints and sinners)...but from his Twomblyesque lyrical qualities” N. Frackman and R. Kaufmann, “Documenta 7: The Dialogue and a Few Asides,” Arts Magazine 57, Oct. 1982, p. 97).
The range and depth of Basquiat’s extraordinary talent is clearly on display throughout this work. Like an alchemist he turns simple pigment into a cacophony of riotous color and form. Although never formally trained as an artist, Basquiat’s natural talent as a painter and his profound life experiences prepared him for his aesthetic language and ability to illuminate the conflicts of his particular time and place in society including tensions of race, class, identity, and culture. Basquiat, a celebrity of both the elite art world and his counter-culture of the New York City streets, helped discover a unique vocabulary for American art through his own form of visual communication. Untitled encapsulates the artist’s tragically brief yet vibrantly expressive and extraordinarily significant career.